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A CONTROVERSIAL POPULATION IN THE BALKANS: THE VLACHS

Quickfacts

The AROMANI, Arumuni, Koutzovlachs, Aromanians or Vlachs, inhabit areas in Greece, Serbia, Macedonia, Albania and Bulgaria, with a total of 1,500,000 Aromanians worldwide. The term Vlach became common with the Aromanians in Greece; the Greek villagers used it to designate a shepherd; referring to the Aromanian population, they used Koutzovlach, (lame shepherd), presumably because of the errors they made when they spoke Greek, to distinguish this group from other shepherds. Romanians call them Macedo-Romanians. In Macedonia they are also known as Cincari. The Aromani, as they prefer to identify themselves, are a distinct ethnic community. The question of their origin has been the subject of various theories along time; a widely-shared theory says that they may be the descendants of a Thracian tribe who intermarried with Roman colonists. When the Roman Empire legions retreated, the members of this tribe took refuge to the Carpathian Mountains as shepherds. This supported the idea that they are related to the Romanians. Some migrated southward to the Pindus Mountains in the Balkans. This happened around the 12th century. Many of these displaced populations have maintained their Latin-based language by keeping much to themselves as shepherds in the mountains, at least until the 20th century.

Unlike other ethnic groups in the area, the entire population of the Vlachs are nomadic and have long been shepherds and muleteers. The Vlachs are not the only surviving nomadic people, the Sarakasani are Greek speaking peoples living in northern Greece and southern Bulgaria. The Sarakasani are either a native tribe that adopted the Greek language, the same way the Vlachs adopted Latin, or they are one of the earliest Greek speaking tribes that arrived in the Balkans in the early Bronze Age.

In the past the Aromanians controlled the overland trade between Greece and the Balkans. They were involved in the struggles in the Balkans at the end of the 19th century when Greece and Bulgaria laid claim to the area, as the Ottoman Empire weakened. Many were Hellenophile, having benefited from Greek schooling, and were influential within the Orthodox communities in the towns and supported the independence of Greece. The shepherds in the mountains were pro-Bulgarian. But others in Macedonia leaned towards Romania which supported them and provided Vlachos schooling. Many fled to Romania and militated for an independent Macedonia in 1918, when Greater Romania was proclaimed. Under Communism, when Macedonia was part of Yugoslavia, the ownership of large flocks and herds was banned, and many of the Aromanian chose to settle in villages.

 

Where They Live Now

Greece: Greece has by far the largest Aromanian community which numbers over 100,000, although Greek census figures are much lower. The majority of the Aromanian population lives in northern Greece, in scattered rural communities. The main areas inhabited by these populations are the Pindus Mountains, Meglan, around lake Prespa, and around the mountains of Olympus and Vermion. They are seasonally nomadic shepherds, most of the men spending the winters on the plains with the flocks, while their families continue to live in their mountain villages. In the summer, the men also have sedentary occupations, such as taxi driving, law and medicine.

Their existence has until recently been delicate as Greece did not acknowledge the existence of national minorities within its boundaries and pursued an active policy of "ethnic homogenization". Generally the use of minority languages has been discouraged.

In the 1980s local cultural organizations were formed to prevent the extinction of the idiom. Generally, those outside of Greece tend to separatist ideals.

Albania: Albania has the second largest Aromanian community, living mostly the southern region of the country, especially around Gjirokaster and Permeti; there are about 100,000 people, approximately 2% of the Albanian population.

Traditionally they have kept large herds of cattle and the men go up in the mountains in the spring and spend the summer there. These are probably those referred to as Karagounis, (black capes), the Arvanitovlachi; they inhabit the north-western part of the Pindus Mountains of Greece and southern Albania as well. Their idiom is mixed with Albanian.

The Aromanians tend to live separately from the Albanians, although assimilation has been forced on them by both Albanian and Yugoslav governments. Aromanian colonies can be found in towns in the south-eastern part of Albania, such as Kastoria, Florina, Monastir, Ohrid and Korca. Another concentration is around Vlora, where the marshes have been drained; other groups also settled for agriculture in this area, forcing the Vlachs to assimilate. The populations formed an Association in 1990 and held a Vlach Conference in 1992. There is a plan to re-open the Aromanian schools and the Romanian Orthodox churches that Romania encouraged before the Communist era. There is an Aromanian version of the New Testament published in 1986; the native speakers of this idiom have other fragments of the Bible available in translation.

The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia: they are concentrated around Bitola, Resen and Krusevo. The population is declining, mainly due to assimilation, which is hastened by the migration of the young people to larger towns where they find jobs in industry. About 6,400 declared themselves Aromanians but the number of those who still consider themselves as a different ethnic group is far greater. They appealed to a Balkan Foreign Ministers Conference in 1988 to be recognized as a separate ethnic group in order to benefit from education in their own idiom.

In the FYR of Macedonia the Aromanians now have a far better situation compared to other communities. They are represented in the Parliament and the constitution stipulates the right of national minorities to study in their own language.

Bulgaria: In Bulgaria there are Romanian speaking populations in the north, close to the border with Romania, and the Aromanian speaking population in the south; Bulgarian natives rarely operate distinctions between these two populations which are referred to by Vlassi.

**Apart from the population outside the borders of Romania, there is an important number of Aromanians in Romania, especially in Dobrudja (Constanta and Tulcea counties and the surrounding areas).

 

References:

Hugh Poulton: Who are the Macedonians? London: Hurst, 1996, p.17.
World Directory of Minorities, Harlow: Longman & Minority Rights Group 1992. p. 130.
Jean-Pierre Liegeois: Gypsies - An Illustrated History, London: Al Saqi Books, 1986

 

History

Who They Are, Where They Live, How Others Perceive Them

 

How They Are Called

In modern Greece, Macedonia, and Bulgaria there are quasi-nomadic populations speaking a Latin language similar to Romanian, but different from the idiom spoken by the northern Vlachs. These southern Balkan Vlachs call themselves Aromanians (meaning Romans). Serbs and Albanians use the term Tsintsars, ironically reproducing what they perceive as characteristic sounds of the Aromanian speech. The term Wallach which comes from the German word for "stranger", occurs in many languages. It became Vlach in Slavic languages; the Greeks called these populations Kutsovlakhi or just Vlakhi. But to add to the confusion, the term Vlach can designate any non-Slav and Vlakhi may mean "any shepherd".

How They Look

Without any substantiated evidence we could describe the Vlachs as slight build; white skin or Latin complexion as compared to Greeks or Slavs. Hair is usually dark brown, but sometimes fair, especially in youth.

 

Before...

Various Theories on Their Origin

In 168 BC the Romans enslaved the Molossians depopulating much of Epirus.

Macedonia and then Greece were eventually incorporated into the Roman Empire and the Balkans and Macedonia marked the zone between Latin and Greek speaking cultures. The official language was Latin from the Danube down to a line marked by Durres, Ohrid, Skopje and Sofia and then east to the Black Sea; south of this line Greek predominated. The continued use of non-Greek languages was recorded in the 1ST century BC in upper and western Macedonia. In the 4TH century AD the Bessi (Thracian tribe of the Rodope Mountains) were still speaking Thracian. Illyrian still exists as Albanian.

During the Roman rule, it is possible that Latin penetrated the inland hills more than Greek as the Romans opened up roads and trade routes across these areas. The Via Egnatia, which was the military and trade land route from the Adriatic to the Aegean probably helped the continuation of a Latin presence and the surviving Vlach villages are in the vicinity of this route. Hence, even if by the 2nd century AD most inscriptions are in Greek this only indicates the official language of towns. The native peoples may have been Latin speaking.

Many have attempted to link the Vlachs to the Roman colonists. The distribution of the Vlachs does not correlate to the distribution of Romans. The Roman colonists were generally from other areas of the Empire and did not use Latin as their first language.The transition from town life to nomadic is less likely to happen than the opposite.

Others suggest the Vlachs moved down to the Pindus in the 6th century AD as the Slavic tribes moved farther into Illyria. The Aromanian idiom is thought to have been severed from the northern Vlachian idiom around this time.

Throughout the early Middle Ages the bulk of the Romanic population lay south of the Danube. It was in the Balkan lands that the Romanic race and language took their characteristic mould. It is here that this new Illyrian Romance first rises into historic prominence. Already in the 6th century, as we learn from the place names, such as Sceptecasas, Burgualtu, Clisura, &c., given by Procopius, the Romanic language was assuming, so far as its Latin elements were concerned, its typical form. In the somewhat later campaigns of Cornmentiolus (587) and Priscus, against the Avars and Slavs, we find the Latin-speaking soldiery of the Eastern emperor making use of such Romance expressions as torna, fratre! (Turn back, brother!), or sculca (out of bed) applied to a watch (cf. Romanian a se culca, Italian coricarsi+ex-(s-) privative). Soon after, the historical sources mentioned this warrior Romanized population as largely incorporated in the Bulgarian kingdom, and, if we are to judge from the names Paganus and Sabinus, already supplying it with rulers in the 8th century. The blending and close contact of the surviving Latin population with the Slavonic settlers in the peninsula impregnated their idiom with its large Slavonic ingredient. The presence of an important Latin element in Albanian, the frequent occurrence of Albanian words in Romanian, and the remarkable retention by both languages of a suffix article, may perhaps imply that both alike took their characteristic shapes in the same region. The fact that these peculiarities are common to the Romanized populations north of the Danube, whose idiom is a different dialect of that spoken by their peers south of Danube, shows that it was this southern branch that had been domineering during earlier periods of the history of Romanized populations in the area. As a result of many historical "accidents", the linguistic particularities of the populations south of Danube irradiated to the northern bank of the river. Little by little, the center of gravity shifted from south to north.

Byzantium, which had ceased to be Roman, and had become Romanic, renewed its acquaintance with the descendants of the Latin provincials of Elyria through a Slavonic medium, and applied to them the name of Vlach, which the Slav himself had borrowed from the Goth. The first mention of Vlachs in a Byzantine source is about the year 976, when Kedrenos (ii. 439) writes about the murder of the Bulgarian tsar Samuel’s brother by certain Vlachian wayfarers, at a spot called the Fair Oaks, between Castoria and Prespa. From, this period onwards the Romanized inhabitants of the Balkan Peninsula are constantly mentioned by this name, and we find a series of political organizations and territorial divisions connected with the name of Vlachiia.

Smaller or Greater Principalities

1. The Bulgarian-Vlach Empire. After the overthrow of the older Bulgarian rulers by Basil Bulgaroktonos (976-1025), the Vlachian population of the former territory of Thrace, Haemus and the Moesian lands passed once more under Byzantine dominion; in 1185 a heavy tax, levied in kind on the cattle of these warlike mountain shepherds, stirred the Vlachs to revolt against the emperor Isaac Angelus; under the leadership of two brothers, Peter and Asan, they founded a new Bulgarian-Vlachian empire, which ended† in 1257. The dominions of these half-Slavonic half-Roman emperors extended north of the Danube over a great deal of what is now Romania, and it was during this period that the Vlachian population north of the river seems to have been most influential in the area. The 13th century French traveler Rubruquis speaks of all the country between Don and Danube as a seas land or Blakia.

2. Great Walachica. It is from Anna Comnena, in the second half of the 11th century, that we first hear of a Vlachian settlement, the nucleus of which was the mountainous region of Thessaly. In the 12th century, Benjamin of Tudela gives an interesting account of this Great Walachia, then completely independent. It embraced the southern and central ridges of Pindus, and extended over part of Macedonia, thus including the region in which the Roman settlers mentioned in the Acts of St. Demetrius had fixed their abode. After the Latin conquest of Constantinople in 1204, Great Walachia had been included in then larger principality of Epirus, but soon reappeared as an independent principality under its old name, which, after passing under the yoke of the Serb emperor Dushan, was finally conquered by the Turks in 1393. Many of their old privileges were given to the inhabitants, and the taxes they had to pay were limited to an annual tribute. Since this period the Megalovlachites have been largely Hellenized, but they are still represented by the flourishing Tzintzar settlements of Pindus and its neighboring areas.

3.Little Walachia was a name used by Byzantine writers when referring to the Roman settlements of Aetolia and Acarnania; Little Walachia sometimes included the Upper Walachia, or Avci Xaxa. Its inhabitants are still represented by the Tzintzars of the Aspropotamo and the Karaguni (Blai Capes) of Acarnania.

4.The Morlachs (Mavrovlachos). These had been mentioned as "Nigri Latini"(Black Latin Speakers) by the presbyter of Dioclea  as early as 1150; they inhabited the old Dalmatian littoral and the mountains of what is now Montenegro, Herzegovina and North Albania. Other colonies extended through a great part of the old Serbian interior, where there is a region still called Stara Vlaka or Old Walachia. They were to be found great commercial towns of the east Adriatic shores in the Venetian republic of Ragusa (Dubrovnik); the republic itself seems to have been a Roman settlement, and many Vlach traces were found in the dialect that would later be spoken there. Philippus de Diversis, who described Ragusa as he saw it was in 1440, writes that the various officers of the republic do not make use either of Slav or Italian, in which they converse with strangers, but a certain other dialect only partially intelligible to us Romance-language speakers; he cites words with strong Romanian affinities. In the mountains above Ragusa a number of Vlach tribes are mentioned in the archives of that city, and the original relationship between the inhabitants of the city of Ragusa and the nomadic Alpine representatives of the Roman provincials, who preserved a traditional knowledge of the old lines of communication throughout the peninsula explains the extraordinary development of the Ragusan commerce. In the 14th century the Mavrovlachos or Morlachs extended themselves towards the Croatian borders, and a large part of maritime Croatia and northern Dalmatia began to be known as Morlacchia. A Major Vlachia was formed about the triple frontier of Bosnia, Croatia and Dalmatia, and a Little Walachia as far north as Po~ega. The Morlachs have now become Slavonized.

5. The Romanic communities in the extreme northwest (Istria) are still represented by the Cici of Val d’rsa and the adjoining Istrian districts. They represent a 15th-century Morlach colony from the Isles of Veglia which formerly extended to Trieste and to the counties of Gradisca and Gorz. The Cici have almost entirely abandoned their native tongue, which is the last remaining representative of the old Morlach, and forms a connecting link between the Daco-Roman dialect (the contemporary literary Romanian) and the Illyrian or Macedo-Roman dialects.

 

References:

A.D. Xenopol: Les Roumains au moyen age, Jassy, 1886
B. P. Hasdeu: Stratul şi substratul: Genealogia poporelor balcanice, in: Annalele Academiei, seria. II, vol. 14, Bucharest, 1893
D. Onciul: Românii in Dacia Traiană, in: Enciclopedia Română, vol. III, Bucureşti, 1902.